Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Nothing New

So some hubbub  is circulating about the announcement of a "new Anglican Province" by a small group of our more disgruntled brothers and sisters.  The Episcopal Café provides some additional food for thought. (Meanwhile, almost as if on cue, the Roman Catholic Church has now named an apparent new threat to the Vatican's sense of order -- a call by the UN for an end to the criminalization of homosexuality.)

My response, quite frankly, is a shrug of the shoulders with a twinge of sadness.  This has been the goal the whole time for the breakaway dioceses, parishes, provinces, and their leadership. Disagreements over human sexuality were a convenient rallying point for a new order.  So they're declaring it at last.  Maybe they will take some of the rancor with them.  Merry Christmas?  Or "Hummmmbug"?
What has been is what will be,
   and what has been done is what will be done;
   there is nothing new under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 1:9

Yes, they will co-opt the name "Anglican" as schismatic groups have done in the past.  But as has been pointed out in a number of places already, the new "province" won't be formally part of the Communion until (if ever) properly ratified by the Anglican Consultative Council -- that is, by a solid majority of representatives of the provinces of the greater Communion.  It is with multiple ironies I write: Best of British luck!

In short, a new church is in the making.  All the power to them, I suppose, but major hurdles await, far beyond the formal process of recognition.  Namely, they will have to come to terms with their own differences in a newly "purified" body of Christians: purified, that is, of gays and lesbians and all of us "reappraising" folk.  That leaves disagreements over the ordination of women, ecclesiastical structure, piety, liturgical norms, and even finer points of theology to be reckoned with. . .

Life will go on.  General Convention meets this summer.  98% of The Episcopal Church will remain just that: The Episcopal Church, with all of its diversity, rough-and-tumble, and shared history and mission.

Tobias Haller offers some sharp insight into the roots of schismatic and otherwise disagreeable ecclesiology and behavior.  Mark Harris is also keeping well up with everything in Anglican Schism Land.

Aside from that, I have little to add, except to wish all, discontented or no, a Holy Advent.  'Tis a time of waiting as much as preparation.  

I close with this before getting back to the real work with real people in this real place: 

Making the ways straight for God has much more to do with reconciliation and lifting up the poor and the voiceless than it does with schism.

Jesus would weep -- were he not, it seems at least to me, so busy with more important things.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Hollow Case Wins

Proposition 8's narrow win in California is a defeat for basic equality, which is more than just a political issue: it's a theological one.  Jesus' vision for the new community that he called "the kingdom of heaven" was fundamentally about breaking down the walls of separation often defined by un-equal treatment. Martin Luther King, Jr., captured this essential piece of Christian theology when he popularized "the beloved community" as a vision of God's future for the human family and all of creation.

Speaking as an American citizen, Prop 8 represents a sorry collision between the democratic ideals of the referendum process and the obligation of the judiciary in a democracy to uphold the basic rights of minorities -- over and against the potential tyranny of the majority.  The irreconcilable conflict of rights now written in the California state constitution will be the subject of many court battles to come, and rightly so. However much the Prop 8 proponents may cheer at their victory this day, I take hope that their success has far less margin than the referendum vote of only a few years ago -- one that they argued they were defending.

And what were they defending?

Those of us who live in communities where gay and lesbian couples are openly sharing covenanted relationships -- yes, that's what I and many other Christians call marriage -- and some of them raising families. . . Well, we see no threat whatsoever to heterosexual marriages. Indeed, my marriage has been strengthened by their witness.

Prop 8 rode a dubious, hollow case that somehow its rejection would mean gay and lesbian marriage would be taught in schools. State educators made it clear this was not at all true. Another spurious claim was that clergy would be forced by the state to marry same-sex couples. This is as naked a red herring as there ever was.  Then there's the idea that traditional marriage, whatever we mean by that, needs to be "protected." Again, I ask (and I have yet to hear a cogent answer) from what, exactly?

Behind these flimsy arguments are the real questions that need to be addressed, if we listen closely.  Here are only two of them:

Is there truly a threat that same-sex marriages pose to the integrity of the household, Christian or otherwise?  

Do we still dare to believe that people can "catch" homosexuality, as though it's a disease?  

Proposition 8 is a sham and a shame. It enshrines fear and discrimination at the constitutional level in California.  It affirms ignorance over compassionate knowledge.  It throws a thin veil of abstract morality over bigotry and intolerance.  It idolizes gender and sexuality, when true marriage is fundamentally about neither. And contrary to its disciples' assertions, Prop 8 will not save marriage.  Nor will fear.  I wish and pray that many setting out to "save marriage" would stop attempting to do so through fear.  Fear has destroyed many a marriage, after all.  And fear undermines the God-given dignity of the human family. 

I only echo Martin Luther King, Jr.,  by writing this: 

Given the long arc of history in this country, Proposition 8 will not ultimately stand.  Hollow cases built on fear and ignorance cannot remain for long in God's time.  Nor can they, by definition, withstand the light of reason.

My thoughts and prayers are very much with our sisters and brothers who are hurt by this mean proposition.  Their dignity and future security is what is truly threatened, and that of their children.  This is the true offense to morality.  

Long may we defend them: with renewed and prayerful patience, solidarity, and witness to the fruits of covenant already among us.

The World has Changed

I shared with Hiroko last night as the electoral college votes locked in a victory for Barack Obama that this was the first time I can remember in at least eight years I was truly proud to be an American.

Obama has proven once again that Americans refuse to be victims of history, even their own. The grip of the withering hand of racism was loosened.  Now my son, another child of two national heritages and two racial identities, can see in the eyes of his president an experience, a life not so very far removed from his own.  Over dinner last night, even before the results were absolutely clear, Daniel explained in his five-year-old matter-of-factness that Obama had won. It was like him stating the sky is blue, water is wet, or God is good.  In a profound moment, Daniel was stating an existential reality that many of us more jaded adults scarcely believed possible even a few months ago.  
Obama is his president.

And I wonder at the mobilization of countless young people in this country who were not so very long ago written off as disinterested and apathetic.  Some of them right here in the parish and community I serve poured enormous energy and countless hours into changing the electoral landscape of the country.  Their success asserts that beyond all the cynicism of the last decade is the reality that we remain, fundamentally, a people of hope.

We have a leader now who apparently refuses to live out of a place of anger or fear.  Who plants hope with a good dose of humility. Who admits his mistakes while carrying a vision for the future.  Sure, our president-elect will not be perfect.  He will sometimes disappoint me.  
But he embodies and lives into a reality to which we are all called:

The world has changed.  But we have a say in what tomorrow will be.  It's time we claim that and act on it.

God be with him.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

An Unfair God

Sermon delivered at Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley

Sunday, September 21st, 2008.

Proper 20 Readings

Well, this week the world changed, didn’t it? Over night the rules on stock trades tightened, an esteemed Wall Street institution disappeared, a huge international insurer was buttressed by the federal bank, and both presidential campaigns completely re-tooled their messages around that now old adage: “It’s the economy, stupid.” And after a week where some people woke up to find themselves without work, without pensions, or at least somewhere they didn’t expect to find themselves on the vast spectrum between lots and nothing. . . central banks worldwide
began coordinating their efforts, and our national leadership decided it was time for the government to work out a way to bail out the free markets to the tune of $700 billion. It’s a figure that seems too huge to me to imagine. Then the papers report that part of this will involve raising the national debt ceiling to $11.3 trillion, a truly staggering number indeed. I’ll stop there. Many of you know the story better than I.

So why bring up the greatest financial meltdown, some say, since the Great Depression, in a sermon on a sunny morning at Church of Our Saviour? Why talk about dollars, debt, and the economy at all in a liturgy all about God? Because, of course, first and foremost, some of our members live, work, and breathe in the world of numbers and finance. Some of our sisters and brothers have been hit by the unprecedented swings in the markets this week – and have lost. And all of us are uncertain about what happens next. And then, in comes today’s very strange parable about simple street economics, and I am left wondering just what is the connection between Wall Street, Main Street, and the Jesus’ imagined street where the workers are hanging out waiting for employment in the vineyard.

Over lunch this week, a colleague put it quite simply: It’s not fair. Period. We are rankled, some openly, others quietly inside, about CEO’s walking away from failed financial giants with tens of millions in golden parachutes while nameless employees of the same companies, good, hardworking people who have devoted decades to the institution, are left with valueless savings or pensions and nowhere to turn. We might be rankled, too, if we were in Jesus’ parable, first to show up to the vineyard but discovering at the end of the day we receive no more than those who arrived at 5 o’clock. And might not we be annoyed with the landowner, God even, who argues like any governing board or manager that we received what we agreed to – CEO or office assistant – along with all the risks, perks, and privileges. It’s not fair. And if Wall Street and the current mess in the nation’s economy punches a hole in good old-fashioned notions of American fairness, then so does today’s Gospel. Full stop.

In some ways, it’s even easier to cope with Wall Street’s unfairness. Risk, we could say, is part of the game we sign up for when we invest either ourselves, our capital, or both. But we didn’t really sign up to invest in God’s universe. . . we simply are here. So if God is just as unfair, maybe we have even a greater cause to complain. At the heart of our theological angst is the same fear at the heart of the greater world’s angst this week: that bad things happen to good people, and rarely do we receive what we expect, what we consider fair. The world, the universe, and even God’s way of being among us seems much of the time unpredictable and capricious. In the kingdom of God, Jesus says, the last will be first and the first will be last. There doesn’t seem much wiggle room for proclaiming “not fair!” and no cosmic or heavenly SEC, federal regulatory commission, congressional hearing, or even a Supreme Court to adjudicate the final decision. Now, who wants a God like that? Arbitrary, it seems, and unable to connect with our notions of fairness to the point that our faith in a greater power who loves us might be profoundly shaken.
The deeper challenge that I hear Jesus posing for us his followers, as well as his earliest disciples, is that our notions of fairness often mask our desire to get ahead. And get ahead on entirely the wrong terms and over the wrong things. My inner dialogue often goes something like this: if only the playing field were really level, I could get ahead. Why? Well, because I’m smarter, tougher, and more resilient than a lot of other people. I show up early and I stay late. I take on more. I work harder.  

Leveling the playing field, a lot of the time, is really about leveling the playing field for me. Fairness is fair only when it gives me an edge, an advantage. So I can show up to the vineyard early and get one of the better-endowed contracts. That’s what the landowner means in a profound way in today’s parable when he questions the fairness argument; when he asks those who are grumbling because they came early; when he asks them quite simply if they did not receive what they agreed to. They really want to be ahead of those loafers who came late. Because they believe they deserve it more. Today’s parable is a stinging indictment of our very human proclivity to justify ourselves, to believe ourselves to be more righteous, more deserving than others, to see ourselves at the front of the line when it comes to God’s grace. And one way we do that is by declaring “it ain’t fair.” Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way:

[Today’s parable] sounds quite different from the end of the line, after all, than it does from the front of the line, but isn’t it interesting that 99 percent of us hear it from front row seats? We are the ones who have gotten the short end of the stick; we are the ones who have been gypped. We are the ones who have gotten up early and worked hard and stayed late and all for what? So that some backward householder can come along and start at the wrong end of the line, treating us just like the ne’er do wells who do not even get dressed until noon!

So does that archetypal CEO with the $20 million deserve what he gets any more than his co-worker elsewhere in the company who lost everything? The world’s answer might be yes and it might be no, or it might wash its hands of the matter and call it capitalism or the risks and rewards of the marketplace. Maybe we could delve deep into the personal history of each person and the string of choices that led one to the top of the corporate ladder and the other one into a more obscure, less financially secure position. Or we might push it back a layer and talk about their education, or their opportunities growing up, or their parents’ examples. How far back would we go? Where would we stop? But maybe, given today’s Gospel, we’re asking the wrong questions.

It might be more true, Jesus argues to us out of today’s parable, to recognize that we all came into this life with nothing, and we leave it with nothing. . . save, of course, the real wage that God has promised. And to understand that wage, look at what happens, my sisters and brothers, when we come to the altar for Eucharist. Each of us, no matter where we appear on the socio-economic spectrum; whether we won, lost, or drew even this week; whether we work hard or enjoy leisure more; whether we deserve it or not; even whether we’ve been good or bad or indifferent. . . each of us approaches the altar and receives exactly the same wage: the bread and the wine, the body and blood of Christ crucified and risen for us. For that is where our true identity resides. Not in our portfolios or positions. Not in the stature of our work or our status in community. Trust me, don’t let the nice clothes, the snazzy titles, or the high pulpit fool you. The last will be first and the first will be last. It’s the world that measures in terms of economic prowess and political power. God’s realm looks at human value and identity through a radically different lens than do we much of the time.

Paul’s Letter to the church in Philippi caps today’s Gospel message with this little tidbit: neither our life, nor our death, is as important as Christ’s life in us. Full stop. It’s that resurrected life in Christ that can help us turn to one another in these tumultuous times and hold each other up. Christ’s life in us can lead us out into a world that is struggling and suffering in the present chaos. . .lead us out into it with renewed purpose, where we live no longer for ourselves, but for God’s Creation, God’s People, and a world in need of hope. A purpose that transcends Wall Street and Main Street, and lives wherever compassion renews our humanity; leaving behind the fairness argument and instead working for justice: and that is whatever restores relationship, human dignity, and community. And in doing so, that life in Christ guides us and nourishes us through the uncharted wilderness and leads us, together, towards the Promised Land.

Quotation from “Beginning at the End” in The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons from the Episcopal Series of the Protestant Radio Hour by Barbara Brown Taylor (Forward Movement Publications, 1990).

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Prayers for Lambeth

The truth will set you free...

Friday, June 20, 2008

On Pilgrimage

Gates, Walls, and Towers

Holy Places, Holy Service

A Youth Pilgrimage to the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, New York City

June 21st - 29th, 2008

Please pray for us pilgrims. May we find and be found by Christ!

Psalm 122

I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’
Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.
Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together.
To it the tribes go up,
the tribes of the Lord, as was decreed for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
For there the thrones for judgement were set up,
the thrones of the house of David.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
‘May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.’
For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Marital Umbrage

A great deal of umbrage has been bandied about in recent days in the blogosphere over a recent pastoral letter. It was sent by Bishop Marc Andrus to the clergy and people of the Episcopal Diocese of California outlining pastoral guidelines for how we are to treat the new reality of same-sex marriage unleashed by the California State Supreme Court a few weeks ago. A similar, more succinct pastoral letter was sent by +Mary Gray-Reeves, the new bishop of El Camino Real, one of our three sibling Episcopal dioceses in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Not all of the umbrage has come from the usual suspects. This piece posted by Lisa Fox is one example among many that worry what has happened here has opened the door to further lawlessness in the church. Somehow now, we dare not claim any righteous indignation at our brothers and sisters who have flouted canons by writing The Episcopal Church out of their diocesan constitutions and are making a mad dash for the guilded red doors. . . and trying to take them, too, on the way out.
Perhaps we can no longer condemn that as vociferously as some of us have. Then again, that doesn't worry me too much. Righteous indignation is highly overrated.
Bishop Marc, it seems to me, has chosen along with his Diocese a very careful, tenuous path of grace in a conflicted Church. Following his recommendation, I informed my vestry yesterday evening that I would no longer preside over a marriage of any kind until The Episcopal Church has settled on a way forward that honors the covenants of all couples with equality. Rather, I will treat all couples who approach me for marriage equally by offering counseling and blessing, and referring them to the civil authorities to publicly declare their vows as legally binding. By equality, I don't mean political equality (although that naturally follows), but equality in terms of the recognition of God's grace.
A parishioner asked me yesterday if I was therefore withholding the sacrament of marriage. After reflection, I decided I wasn't because I can't. It is the couple who engage in the sacrament of marriage. At best, as a priest, I can only name it and declare it publicly. The sacrament of marriage between couples of all sorts will continue with or without my help in that particular way. In a curious sense, that's liberating Good News, as I fast from this part of ordained priesthood.
I believe in my bones that I must do my utmost to follow the discipline of the Church to which I have pledged a good deal of my life. Clearly the Book of Common Prayer and the canons as they are presently structured define Christian marriage as being between a man and a woman. I cannot, in good conscience, use the marriage liturgy of the greater Church to solemnize anything other. Bishop Marc appears to feel much the same way. Indeed, his authority is limited in that he cannot unilaterally change these definitions. I applaud him for that admission.
But nor can I ignore the fruits of the Spirit I see in my brothers and sisters who have heard God's call into a covenant that the Church does not yet, as a whole, recognize. So, where gender is the only measure of difference, to solemnize one coupling over another creates a hierarchy of goodness and grace that I no longer believe in. I'm not sure Jesus, given his proclivity to reach out to the very least among us, would believe in it either.
I am ever more convinced that we have mistakenly, for many centuries, hung a theology of marriage on two all-too-fragile constructs that have changed radically over time, cultures, and places: gender and the regulation of sex. As a married man for over eight years, I have learned that marriage is anything but about these two things. Gender is a highly malleable confluence of biology, sociology, and behavior. Sure, sexual intercourse is a fun gift, but outside the realm of addiction, it is an unpredictable occurrence that has very little air time in the overall scheme of a marriage. Moreover, reducing the validity of marriage to anatomy is the height of absurdity, given the beautiful fruits we see in marriages where sexual anatomy and intercourse have been compromised or even eliminated by infirmity, age, or mere genetics.
No, this is about covenant rooted in those pesky vows that all married people are tempted to shirk from time to time. Strangely enough, the vows say nothing about sex. Only the state, which tends to build laws around the measurable, physical, and quantifiable, will occasionally dabble in sex when it tries to determine the legitimacy of a marriage. It talks about consummation, which has that awful root found in "consume." But even then, it relies largely on the word of one or both parties. And all of us know that sex devoid of the often painfully hard work of love never saved a marriage. Indeed, most states have learned to get out of the business of regulating sex, treating it as a private matter between consenting adults, married or not. Only violence remains forbidden in most places with decent jurisprudence, and marriage is no excuse.
To talk about sex coldly and clinically for a moment: it is largely driven by seasons, moons, hormones, and the still mysterious science of attraction. Devoid of greater context, it can both give rise to life and death. Much of the time, of course, it does neither. Yet again, devoid of context, this strange gift woven by our Creator through evolution into the fabric of humanity seems to have very little moral character in and of itself. So here I agree with even the most adamant of the self-proclaimed orthodox: when sex happens and between whom is what really matters. That is what makes sexual congress moral or not. But even so, holy sexual intimacy is a humorous, capricious, and odd but familiar guest along for the ride in marriage, not the marriage itself. Sexual intimacy is just one manifestation among many of the mysterious joys that come through the growing knowledge of another human being imbued with the grace of Christ Jesus.
Sexual orientation appears to be given for some, malleable for others, but deeply shrouded in the mystery of life like the ephemeral nature of attraction itself. Why one sort should be favored over another appears increasingly strange to me, arbitrary and unreasonable, the creation of a hierarchy for hiearchy's sake. Specious claims of the species dying for lack of offspring still bounce around the web like spitwads in an undisciplined classroom. Every study of substance I have seen says that if we let everyone couple or not according their orientation and inclination tomorrow, there will still be a huge number of naturally conceived children to grow up and assume their place in the future.
And marriage is not ultimately about children, either. We all know couples who are happily married without children or the possibility of them. I have yet to tire of paraphrasing Ed Friedman in A Failure of Nerve when he reminds us that all good parents must learn that their salvation does not depend on their children. Children are only some of the strangers who benefit from a healthy household -- strangers in our midst who need love, care, and concern from a varitable host of folk -- not simply two parents with the right combination of sexual anatomy or social exhibition of gender. The nuclear family myth is dying in our culture. Let it, I say. Afterwards, there will still be plenty of mother-father families around nurturing happy families. So, too, will there be single-parent households and adoptive families, extended families, and blended families. All of them raising children will share one thing in common: they will need a great deal of help from the outside to be successful. Let us restore what the ancients knew without thinking: children need a whole community of households and mentors and a God to help them become generous, loving adults -- not merely life in a Norman Rockwell painting.
Rumor has it that the Roman Catholic Church is presently questing to theologically demonstrate that men and women must complement each other in marriage in order to be whole. I found a manifestation of this in a children's book on the Creation I pulled off a shelf in a California mission bookstore near my home a few months ago. It said that God created man and woman, and that they must marry each other in order to be fully human. Truly, this is a strange teaching, even if we set aside the terrible examples all around us of lives broken in unhappy marriages. For any cursory read of scripture and the Christian tradition leads to the conclusion that Jesus most probably wasn't married. Was he therefore less than fully human? To argue so would undermine a core doctrine of orthodoxy by virtually every Christian's standard. Moreover, where does this leave the celibate living in Holy Orders? Or the millions of single people of the world who have found fulfillment in their life with God and community?
No, the notion of gender complementarity has not the least bit convinced me that same-sex covenants are somehow unworthy of the Church's notice. Even less that they are unworthy of God's.
Marriage at its root is about covenant: upholding, nurturing, and honoring in a mutual, faithful, forgiving relationship. The pledge to build up trust over many years through thick and thin. To lead one another through the ups and downs of this life and to form and sustain a household together -- that little building block of the greater community that provides stability and hospitality. When marriages fail, the state talks coolly about breaking up households into smaller economic units. The Church in its sorrow talks about this, if at all, almost in terms of spiritual surgery. When Jesus talked about divorce, however necessary it might sometimes be, he appears to me to say that it is only a reflection of that which threatens to shatter all human relationships: the brokenness found in the human heart.

So even the best love in the world needs covenant: covenant that models loyalty, friendship, compassion, spiritual, emotional, and economic support, and all the other life-giving ways of relating that hold this little planet of ours together and mirror God's grace for us. Covenant rooted in stories that transcend gender and sex are easily found in our holiest writ: God, Abraham, and Sarah; Ruth and Naomi; Jonathan and David; Christ and the Church; Paul and those annoyingly fickle Christian communities he helped found. Marriage is meant to model covenants of all kinds. On the other hand, it is but one of many forms of covenant rooted in the water-is-thicker-than-blood theology of baptism. This is the same baptism that prompted Paul to write that our unity in Christ breaks down all distinctions, including this one: "In Christ there is no longer male and female. . ."
But we are where we are. The State of California has gone (perhaps temporarily, though I pray not) where we as a Church have not yet dared to tread. But many of us feel called by God to go there, too, while a few portions of the Anglican Communion and an even smaller portion of The Episcopal Church have decided that they will make this as difficult and painful a choice as possible, hanging all other mission if necessary. . .that so cosmic is gender and sex in marriage that even our common life in Christ must apparently be eclipsed and, indeed shattered.
Not so long ago Bishop Marc taught me that diabolos carries in its Greek parts dia (by means of) and bolos (boulder) the implication of shattering something beautiful, like throwing a stone through a stained glass window. It could be said therefore that we in this Diocese, like many across the Anglican Communion, are still confronted with a choice that smacks of the diabolical:
Of working to honor the faithful covenants of those most closely entrusted to our care -- those whom we know as real, fallible human beings made in the image of God -- and our unique witness to the spiritual fruits of their most hallowed relationships. . .
And therefore annoying those who know little to nothing of these couples, their everyday lives, where they come from, how they met, how they love one another, except perhaps in the cold imaginings of the most clinical variety. Of risking that this annoyance will provoke another stone to be cast at the fragile panes of something we hold with strangers and intimates alike around the world: communion with God in Christ.
As painful as this reality is, it strikes me as far preferable to continuing to abandon or ignore those we are called to love and nurture in every way, of turning our face away from the face of Christ in a good many of our sisters and brothers. . .only to please or appease those who know them least, whether bishop, archbishop, or priest. Or should we prefer perpetuating injustice to our own and the violation of a prayerful conscience so that we may, for a time, take an unholy peace by mollifying a frequently disinterested ecclesiastical power -- disinterested until threats suit its ends?
While our violation of canons by what we are doing in this case is quite arguable (I believe we have pushed their limits, but not transgressed them), amid the half-veiled or fully naked calls that we are anarchists and rejecters of the rule of law, I am reminded of the legacy of civil disobedience. Is there such a thing in an ecclesiastical setting? It was St. Augustine who argued that an unjust law is no law at all. Perhaps we are starting to point towards this ancient truth in our actions at this time.
We are called to minister to people, not powers. If truth be told, we are called to attend to Christ in each other first, not the limits of canons and carefully worded structures. This is a hard truth, for we rely on our canons and constitution to hold for us some sense of unity and community in a fractious world. But, in truth, the canons and constitutions are imperfect reflections of our faith in a perfect God. We must be forever cautious, at least this side of God's promised Reign, not to confuse one for the other. That surely is one reason Christ quoted the ancient Jewish teaching that the law is only properly understood and anchored upon love of God and love of neighbor.
But we have endeavored to honor the canons as best we can, while knowing that law and our ability to abide by them has limits that are mysteriously and constantly tested by a capricious Spirit -- a Spirit who sometimes might even rattle around state supreme courts and be found in controversial judicial decisions. We have endeavored to honor the canons in an effort to show we honor Communion.
We should expect heat just the same. . .umbrage, curses, annoyance. That is our cross to bear.
In my most doubting moments, I remember the counsel of Gamaliel. In my brightest, most jubilant moments, I remember Christ victorious on the cross. We walk with some humility in either case, or at least we should.
After all, loving our neighbors as ourselves is a risky business, even in a country as free as ours.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Hiatus Thoughts

It never ceases to amaze me that all the truly interesting and important things tend to happen while I'm out of town!
After a day of tootling around Guam with Hiroko, Daniel, parents, and in-laws (and having a good time!), and on an evening before Hiroko and I renew our vows as a married couple before our family and God's people, I sat down to read more about the California Supreme Court decision to overturn the ban on gay and lesbian marriage. The decision itself strikes me as remarkable in the careful distinctions it draws. Tobias Haller lifts up some of the important points of the ruling germane to assertions regularly made in opposition to same-gendered covenants. Bishop Marc has already offered a response to the decision, and the San Diego Union-Tribune posts a report that contrasts the views over the question: is this at root a civil rights issue, or a religious-spiritual one?
My response is fundamentally this: What's the difference? How we treat one another both in terms of rights and policy as well as personally is profoundly spiritual. It stems from the summary of the Law that Jesus quotes in his teachings. It is Gospel, it seems to me.
On the related question about the place of the Church in all this business about marriage, I'm of a school of sacramental theology that thinks thus:
  • Two adults "marry" one another when drawn together by God -- nobody marries them. In this way, marriage is a human response to the mystery of a divine gift: mutual desire and self-offering for companionship, stability, and intimacy. Sexuality in its broadest sense (not narrowly defined as intercourse), is a manifestation of this desire, and it therefore has a strongly sacramental character when expressed in the context of prayerful, loving covenant.
  • The state, not the Church, confers the legal rights, protections, and responsibilities that support the resulting (expanded) household. In this way, the state defines the public/political dimension of marriage in regulating the household as an economic and legal entity.
  • Marriage as an institution is largely human in origin. Adam and Eve, contrary to the myth we all seem to have inherited, were not formally married! I note, too, the important witness of numerous couples who have lived for years in healthy covenant without engaging in a formal public union. Moreover, Jesus seems to stress this point about marriage as human institution in Mark 12:25 and Matthew 22:30. History and tradition tell us that marriage has evolved greatly over time, and it was a late comer to the sacramental ministry and mission of the Church. I find that its record in the hands of the Church is, at best, ambivalent. At worst, it has had a corrupting influence and has been abused in numerous ways as a tool of control. For this reason, the Church remains in a state of recovery -- I hope with a strong dose of grace -- when it comes to our theologies of marriage.
  • As far as Christianity is concerned, baptism trumps gender. Indeed, the vocation of new life in the Risen Christ explodes the notion that biological and social distinctions are essential to God's work and blessing. Every human institution is subjugated to the saving grace of Christ and re-ordered as a result, not least of which is marriage. Paul in his letter to the Galatians makes perhaps the most succinct assertion of this critical theological point: ". . .there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." (3:28 -- NRSV)
  • With that in mind, I believe the Church ought to publicly affirm Christ's blessing on a couple (gender notwithstanding) and their shared household only after they have discerned with the body of the faithful that their covenant is an extension of their baptismal vocation. This is the function of a Christian marriage liturgy -- nothing more or less than that.
  • Christian marriage and Christian solitude are both mysteriously (and somewhat ironically) about building and nurturing Christian community. For this reason, the Church still has a great deal to learn from our monastic traditions about helping Christian adults discern the spiritual and practical dimensions of life-long vows, the very real call of single adulthood, and what it means in both cases to live with others in fruitful communion in Christ.
  • A word about procreation and marriage. . . Of course children, biological or adopted, benefit along with other family members, friends, and the broader community from the expanded, stable household generated by a healthy marriage. I love my son dearly, and I have learned that parenthood is just as much a vocation as marriage! However, I strongly disagree with the apparent position of Roman Catholicism and other more conservative theologies which continue to argue that biological procreation (or its potential, however improbable) forms an essential ingredient of a fulfilled marriage. To paraphrase the late Ed Friedman, good parents learn not to place the weight of their individual salvation (or the salvation of their marriage!) on their children. Essentializing procreation seems to me to have its roots in the worldly endeavors of perpetuating inheritance, preserving the institutional church through time, and building and sustaining other human institutions like the nation state. But this priority on procreation fundamentally distorts marriage as a sacramental icon for all human covenants and perpetuates a myth that has profound consequences for the human family and our companion creatures. Indeed, we have interpreted the command to be "fruitful and multiply" too narrowly at our own peril, our children's peril, and, as we are increasingly learning, the planet's peril.

I should add that I feel very fortunate to be in a part of the Church that has done extensive work on this subject already, and to be sharing ministry with friends and colleagues who have been on the forefront of the theological recovery in this area.

As a post script, Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire offers a strikingly personal and yet pastoral reflection on his ongoing work and ministry in an interview with the Church Times. Truly, he re-defines "grace under fire." Very much worth reading. . .

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Preaching While Gay

The Lead reports that Archbishop Rowan Williams has barred Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire from preaching or presiding while in England. Bishop Robinson has agreed to comply, although he submits to a moral travesty that should be an embarrassment to every Anglican.
Meanwhile, no similar measure has been taken against Archbishop Akinola or Presiding Bishop Venables, both of whom (amongst others) continue to actively violate provincial boundaries, snapping up clergy, parishes, and dioceses outside of their jurisdiction. All this continues despite protest from their peers. All this continues even though it flouts the Windsor Report, which was reportedly cited as another reason to bar Bishop Robinson from simply preaching and presiding. Yet, by all accounts, Akinola and Venables and their cohorts are still invited to Lambeth while Bishop Robinson is not.
The justification used to bar Bishop Robinson appears to me to be the moral ecclesiastical equivalent of "driving while black" -- preaching or presiding while gay. Truly, it smacks of Donatism. How can the greater world not draw the conclusion that his preaching or presiding is somehow perceived as diminished or less Spirit-filled -- less fruitful for the Church, in England at least -- simply because he is gay?
The primary reason Archbishop Williams appears to have given for this decision is to forestall further controversy in the Communion. I submit that this is a futile effort, exhibits no substantive leadership, and only further victimizes our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers. In the end, it constitutes only a demonstration of raw heterosexism: a prejudice against gays combined with an exercise in clerical power.
This marks another sad day in Anglican history and will do nothing to resolve the ongoing crisis.
Update: Tobias Haller has some graceful perspective on this day, and on Bishop Robinson's response, which is more graceful than many of our own.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Hearing Stephen's Cry

A Reflection for Earth Day, 2008

Excerpted from a Sermon delivered at Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, on the Fifth Sunday of Easter
Easter 5 Lections

A mentor and good friend to me once remarked that he wasn’t an environmentalist. Charlie said he didn’t honestly care so much about the whale or the walrus, the polar bear or the eagle. But what he did care about was the human family and our need for clean air and clean water, for adequate food for all people, for health and well-being. Taking care of the whale and the walrus, the polar bear and the eagle, the farmland and the rain forest – all of this was good in as much as it meant good things for us.

I may care more about the natural world than Charlie did or does, but his observation holds true. We have forgotten in our daily habits and consumptive appetites that our common life and work depends on a 100-million-year-old ecosystem that is now under siege. The household of God, built by our Creator through almost unimaginable and miraculous processes spanning vast eons is the sacramental sign of the home with many dwelling places that Christ promises us in the Gospel. And we are placing it in peril on to imperil ourselves.

We have learned in recent months the close connection between policies on bio-fuels, industrialization, soaring oil and agricultural prices, and food riots in Haiti and sub-Saharan Africa. We struggle as a people with the fact that we cannot so easily engineer our way out of the dangers of global warming, increasingly scarce commodities, and famine for some of our sisters and brothers. These are huge problems. They require not only a complete top-to-bottom re-thinking of how we have lived and will live as a people, but a renewed solidarity and commitment from each of us in small, everyday decisions. We are re-learning what the bee and hummingbird both instinctively learn: balance in an inter-dependent cosmos.

Picking up the lid to a dumpster yesterday while we were at the beach on our youth retreat in Inverness, I glimpsed piles of plastic, discarded cardboard, scraps of paper carelessly tossed on the pristine sands of Northern California: an accusatory fingerprint of our forgetful appetites and ways that abuse the Earth.

Some Christians – indeed many through the centuries – argue that all Creation is fallen. That is among our hallowed traditions. But what even our most ardently theologically conservative sisters and brothers are now starting to see is that our abuse of the planet is a symptom of our fall. Our often unconscious and sometimes brazen insistence that the resources of the Earth are endlessly ours to be used as we see fit is eating our home – made by God – is eating it alive, tearing it apart brick by brick. We are dismantling God’s mortal mansion lovingly given for us. We are consuming our own body. And we are caught, so many of us, unknowingly in this system of quiet violence to our roots. Heaven help us if we pull the cornerstone!

I am increasingly alarmed by our ever more sleep-deprived and over-medicated culture, whatever claims it may make, consciously or not, to a Judeo-Christian heritage. I find myself more and more these days listening to Scripture and prayer alongside the wisdom of my gut as I trim back the ingested sugar and processed chemicals; the cleansing of simple water that marks our baptism; the wisdom of the wind in the trees like the breath of the Spirit; the heartbeat of Christ in the motion of the waves; and the sacramental generosity of self-giving love in the life of grain and the vine that we point to and then take in each Sunday. It is as though the Earth itself has taken up Stephen’s loving cry as he, the first Christian martyr, is stoned by the powerful and the heedless, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

For too long, we have rejected the earth as a resource for holiness. The linear-thinking ancestors who wrote our history were carrying the mantle of ancient and medieval empire when they, in the name of God’s kingdom made in their image, threw out pagan worldviews and practices wholesale: those traditions of indigenous peoples that, at their best, remembered that our relationship with the earth itself is inexorably caught up in our relationship with the divine. The people many of our ancestors were taught to hate now speak like ghosts to us across the ages through the creatures at the edge of extinction, the dying reefs, and the starved and parched earth, reminding us that we are accountable to the soil and the land and the spirit of the creature every bit as much as God is accountable to us the abundant love we receive in the harvest, the catch of the day, and the strike of raw materials.

Listen closely to the lives of many of our own neighbors who are not Christian. So many of the spiritual practices they take up quietly damn our Christian tradition – and rightly so – for its rejection of the body’s wisdom, the life that flows from being rooted in the Earth and her patient rhythms and all the dance of the Cosmos. Sometime between the first Christian martyr and the present day, we became the powerful and the heedless, stoning the body of Creation that saw the heavens opened and witnessed to us in ways too many to number.

What we have too often forgotten is that Jesus was born human, crucified, and rose again not only for our sake, but for the sake of all Creation. The heritage of his body, beyond that of the lineage of ancient Israel and King David, was the heritage of genetics and mitochondria, cells and organs, matter and energy woven into beautiful life, the heritage of the whale and the spider, the sky and the ocean, the stars and the galaxies. Stardust made green and verdant is who we are, too, every bit as much as our intelligence and industry. Jesus today promises his followers a mansion, a house with many rooms. The Earth, and indeed the universe, is a sacramental sign, however fallen, of this promised home for us. We break it at our peril and risk the curses of our children. Indeed, it is not too much to say that we risk a hideous damnation for our failure to heed the Gospel, the Word made flesh –flesh like our flesh, bonded to the life of all Creation.

Yet for all the doom and gloom, for a Creation profoundly threatened, there is reason to hope. The long-silenced cries of the Earth, echoing Stephen’s words, have at last gotten the attention of politicians and even the great leaders of industry, whose ambitions and machines gave birth to our economy and lifestyle. Scientists are back in the labs and the fields and the oceans trying to close the loops of our energy cycles. Indigenous practices are strangely winding their ways back into the hands of farmers who have grown tired of chemical fertilizers, poisoned wells, and tainted livestock. Fishermen are gladly putting their marginal livelihoods on the line to restore fish populations. And we as Christians are called to the table to remind us that these actions are not about mere survival, but about the Gospel, the working out of our salvation.

We are just starting to recover in our faith and practice a sense of the sacramental nature of God’s creation, a body that nourishes us and attends to us with the great cycles of warm and cold, rain and sun, the green and blue life whose DNA is at our roots like long lost relatives or the ancient, land-based tribal peoples from which we descended.

We are, in small but significant ways, starting to remember this as Celtic Christians did, invoking the name of the Trinity each time they dug their hands into the soil, tended the tree, or prepared the food. We are learning to remember it each time we think twice before buying the plastic, taking out the recycling, starting a compost, replacing a light-bulb, downsizing our consumption, calculating our carbon footprint, or pondering our gas mileage.

We must remember it as we learn to stand up in Christ’s name for justice not only for the suffering humanity around us but for the often silent cries of our forgotten neighbors – the creatures in all their diversity and plentitude, strangeness, and beauty that God also lovingly made. They share God’s house with us. In many ways, their welfare is our welfare. These are small steps, but cumulatively, they add up to a great deal, and they send a powerful message that we are waking up again to who we were made to be, and who we are called to become.

We must return to the fullness of our deepest traditions, with its cycle of seasons, our rhythms grounded in those of the earth, the sun, and the moon. For, in truth, we are both a cyclic and a linear people. Our brains are hardwired for both. The cyclic to nurture us on the journey and remind us of our heritage, the linear to set us free from bondage and unfold the divine gift of salvation among us.

We must learn again to pattern ourselves in closer harmony with the stuff from which we were made and that which sustains our earthly pilgrimage, to regain hearts for green and growing things and the life of the seas. To care for this fragile house with many rooms, a home that nourishes our earthly pilgrimage and bears the marks of the divine architect, sacramental reflections of the Spirit that breathes life out of nothingness.

And then to recognize we are one in Christ, not only with each other, but with all Creation, called to lead the earth in God’s praise, giving voice to every creature under heaven as we sing not only with our voices but in our bodies and relationships, “Holy, holy, holy!”

And, like Stephen, see the sky open and heaven revealed, to glimpse the divine dwelling places prepared for us and all life from the foundations of Creation.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Fruits, Nuts, and Christ

A Reflection for the Second Sunday of Lent
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house. . .”
I have to wonder what Abram would have thought of this strange God asking him to leave behind all that was his identity. I have to wonder what conversation was like the evening after Abram made up his mind to go. How he told his wife Sarai that they were about to leave behind everything. . .and I mean everything. . .that they thought they were. So much so, as you might remember, even their names later change to Abraham and Sarah as they are re-made by God’s promises and the strange journey they are about to make. It seems at once a primordial story of our humanity – indeed, much of Genesis is written precisely with that in mind. For even now, countless centuries after the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Lot was told around campfires in the desert, we remain largely a nomadic people.

Even for those of us who have spent all or most of our lives living here in Mill Valley, we only have to look at the changes we see around us to recognize the entire human family remains on the move. The world is changing for good and for ill. People come into our lives and leave them. Many more of us seem to have stopped here as sojourners, visitors.

When I came out to the Bay Area from the Midwest nine years ago this Fall, I was reminded by one disgruntled family friend that I was coming out to be with all the “fruits and nuts.” I was moving to Berkeley, so what can I say? A parishioner in the small-town parish where I was raised up for ordination shrugged his shoulders and said California was going to all slide into the sea, anyway. Well, with the prognostication about Global Warming, maybe we will end up under water anyway – so perhaps Harold was right!

But I came anyway. I couldn’t exactly quantify what called me out here: The draw of a new experience in a diverse environment; a seminary that looked attractive to me; starting afresh in a new place with only my own mettle and a healthy dose of grace. Isn’t that why many people come West, as they have in this country for over a century and a half?

But there was no road map to follow when I got out here. To be sure, a seminary education had a set curriculum, but beyond those three years the future was as opaque and impenetrable to my gaze as a solid brick wall . . . or a completely fogged-in day on the Bay. I didn’t imagine I would meet Hiroko (although the general idea of meeting someone to marry was attractive.) I didn’t imagine working in San Francisco for four years in a small, struggling Asian-American mission. I couldn’t fathom having a son or even what he might look like. But Daniel looks and behaves like Daniel, despite his Dad’s lack of specific vision for the future. . . And I didn’t imagine ending up in Marin County in Mill Valley, with a loving parish like this one. Go figure!

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes,” Jesus says to a puzzled Nicodemus today in yet another inscrutable passage from John’s Gospel. I can’t imagine that many of you have a story all that different from mine. Several weeks ago I asked our ten o’clock crowd how many of them imagined they would be living Mill Valley when they grew up. No one out of a hundred raised their hands. Every one of us lives a story that is being written as we live it. We are the “fruits” and “nuts” that grew on far away trees and ended up together in this place for a time, brought here by God into community, being turned inside out regularly by the challenges and joys of a life together shared.

Granted there are times even here in Mill Valley that it seems coming to church itself may be, well, a little bit nutty. And surely, even with our context set aside for a minute, with all that goes on in churches from time to time – Church of Our Saviour being no exception – we wonder why we stick with it.

Even more deeply we ought to feel on occasion why we stick with God in Christ. Jesus in John’s Gospel today speaks almost in riddles about the profound heart of Christian conversion in baptism. It is a mysterious event, buried for many of us in our infancy before we can remember. Even for those of us who can remember our baptisms, we are still left wondering why we did it at times. Why we turned ourselves over to this strange God and the tradition that has grown up in response. The Spirit blew like the wind, where it chose, and we heard the sound of it. . . or our parents and families did. . . but we did not know where it came from or where it was going. Perhaps, more appropriately for the story of Abram and his family: we did not know where it was taking us.

The Christian journey is like that. There are a few road signs, but no map. The path forward is obscured by everything from trees to mountains, cloud, and the fog of our own confusion, and frequently the darkness of our own limited knowledge. All we know much of the time is that we will meet companions along the way. They will walk with us for a time. At other times, we will be swept up by the wind and turned in a completely new direction on our own.

Our faith is built on the same assumptions that Abram’s was. This Abram who pulled up stakes and set off on a wild new adventure into the land of fruits and nuts, where people were strange and different, and the path forward was uncertain. His assumed faith, our faith, the faith of Christ and his disciples across the ages, the faith of a Spirit-filled people as she blows them into uncharted waters. . . it is a faith that assumes God knows what is right for us.

It is not blind allegiance to a set of principles or rules, but an abiding relationship with the One who made us. It will be contentious and difficult at times, much like a marriage. It will be frustrating and strange, like living in a foreign land. But it will remake us . . . for that is what journey is all about.

May you be re-made this Lent, here in the land of the fruits and nuts, where all bets are off, and the joyous task is only to follow where the wind blows, trusting that through it, our Savior is leading us to our true home and re-making us along the way.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Let the Reader Beware

It's an old story, but the much maligned text, John 14:6, keeps resurfacing in various places in the realm of Anglican discourse -- too often in the hands of those who would hold The Episcopal Church as a whole and our Presiding Bishop in particular as somehow heretical or, in the words of one bishop, "deficient" in our Christology; that unless we take "No one comes to the Father except through me" in its most universalizing and exclusive meaning, we are not being faithful Christians.

I waded into a discussion about this at the HoB/D listserve earlier in the evening, after re-reading John 14 and the verses that come just before it.

In principle, context really matters in this case, even if we sidestep debate about what the "historical Jesus" said or didn't say, and confine ourselves fairly narrowly to the internal integrity of the Fourth Gospel.
Here's a more expanded version of what I posted to the list:

I am puzzled that conversations around John 14:6 often do not reflect more often that the verse is a direct response to Thomas's very pressing and somewhat personal question: "How can we know the Way?" The passion of the question seems to stem from an understandably fearful reaction to the foretelling of Peter's denial and Jesus' imminent death and departure.
The question posed also appears characteristic of Thomas, as he cuts through dense theological language to seek more tangible truths. The lead up to his encounter with the Risen Christ in John 20 is among the most well-known stories in the Fourth Gospel and serves as an expansion, if not the apex, of his seeking role.
Moreover, in chapter 14, Jesus is in conversation with his followers, not the unconverted. He is, even in the profoundly theological and sometimes other-worldly narrative of John, addressing a reasonably specific audience of disciples. And Jesus concludes his answer with verse 7, appearing to respond directly to Thomas not in a globalizing, but rather a personal sense: "If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him."

Taken in the broader context of John, this seems to be Christ speaking lovingly to the Johannine community of believers as they wrestle with doubts and their identity in a time of conflict. And, as so many have written (Bill Countryman's The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel is but one wonderful example), it is a statement more broadly given for Christians undergoing conversion, struggling with a journey of deepening faith -- a pilgrimage even -- through the sacramental life, moving into the tensions of a deeply personal and, at the same time, communal relationship with God in Christ.

To therefore use 14:6 in isolation as a litmus test for the orthodoxy of "believers" or an exclusive, narrow theological statement about how God's salvation works (through the Church only?), strikes me as bringing violence into an inspired text -- a passage, chapter 14, that seems intended to be more pastoral than polemical, and to bring comfort to a community of disciples in distress.

After all, it opens with these words, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. . ." (14:1)
Do we really dare, given this context, use it to trouble the hearts of others?

At the end of the day, John 14:6 comes alongside words that are fundamentally meant to edify the Christian community, to draw us into the holy mystery of Christ speaking through the gathering of the baptized around the eucharist, and to bring us along further together in the journey of discipleship.

Yes, it says Christ is central for us as Christians in our knowing God. But anything more universalizing or triumphalist than that may be presuming too much, and brings meaning to the text that I'm not sure is intended.
Such mis-use, as we have seen for too long of John 14:6, is a warning to all of us about proof-texting our own unarticulated agendas with scripture snippets stripped of context.
While I've said nothing really new here, it always bears repeating that scripture has been used for both good and ill by Christians over the centuries. We make spiritual, and indeed moral choices in how we interpret and use our holy texts.
Let the reader of the Word beware.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Blessing Righteousness

Sermon delivered at Church of Our Saviour
Mill Valley, California
The First Sunday after Epiphany
The Baptism of Our Lord

January 13th, 2008

Audio will be posted soon.
Welcome to the other side of the holidays. Back into the thick of things we find ourselves, in the midst of a roaring storm last weekend (and I might add heroic efforts ranging from keeping vigil with the emergency generator to showing up and worshiping by candle light!) I’m actually a little sorry to have missed the great adventure here, but I was off with family in Texas seeing my brother married and starting off himself on a new great adventure.

Christmas to me seems like an age ago, how about you? It’s nestled somewhere between grand liturgies and harrowing hikes with a four-year-old through a vast concrete airport. Many of you are back at school, back at work, back to the usual routines with heightened pressures as the economy slows and the market tide rolls back for a time. Budgets have to be worked and re-worked, paperwork is looming as the tax forms arrive, jobs are starting to shift, which adds a whole new level of anxiety. Ballot instructions roll in for Super Tuesday, the airwaves are filled with pundits and politicians hard at it into the wee hours. The great Anglican mess rolls on with fresh news of the first inhibition of a schismatic bishop in a neighboring diocese, and half a world away, our sisters and brothers in uniform still risk their lives trying to bring order in troubled places. Back into the thick of things is the world and Church, the good, the bad, and the ugly. We must be nagged a bit as we are after every Christmas: did it really usher in a renewed righteousness in the world, or are we back where we were in late November, no better off with a Messiah than without one?

Regardless how we might answer that question, we are all agreed that we remain very much in a state of needing grace. We gather here this morning to seek blessing as we often do: a bit more grace, please, for our busy, sometimes harried lives, a breath of spiritual refreshment before plunging back into the work of tomorrow. We expect Christ’s arrival to mean our baptisms have finally “taken,” that we have a shot at breaking through the challenges of this life, a chance to at last relax and finally realize our longstanding hope that peace has finally come to our hearts, the Reign of God has at least arrived for us and our children.

In a way, so does John the Baptist in today’s Gospel.

It’s hard not to expect something a little bit more dramatic between John and Jesus at the River Jordan – something a little bit more dramatic than an esoteric conversation about the necessity of it all. In a curious way, we’ve been trying to get the two of them together for several weeks now. John’s conception is followed by a remarkable encounter between Mary and John’s mother, Elizabeth. John’s father, Zechariah, is struck dumb until the child is born. Jesus is born amidst the declarations of angels and the star and the magi appear. We have also sprung forward on occasion as decades later John appears at the Jordan River and foretells Christ’s coming, the light that the darkness cannot overcome, warning off those who expect an easy redemption with fiery words. We might capture a mental image of him now fully grown, wild-eyed, dressed in his odd animal skins, living on the edge.

In the snippet of the story we hear this morning, the two cousins, the teacher and disciple, must surely have met with something more than a simple discussion over who gets to do what in the River. Might the two have embraced like old friends, perhaps; might they have shed a tear as two spiritual firebrands compare notes about shaking up the towns and villages; perhaps they laugh about innocent childhoods lost to time and the challenges of mature adulthood with all of its risks of failure?

But no, Matthew only offers us the glimpse of a few brief words that remind us of what John sees in Jesus, and Jesus almost demands baptism “to fulfill all righteousness.” For us and for the earliest Christians a profound mystery is in the imperfect prophet baptizing the person we call the Son of God. John means it when he says he rather needs Jesus to baptize him. Like us, John recognizes that he’s the one who needs the grace.

But we are patiently reminded, as the Spirit waits to appear, that Christ’s Gospel reverses what we expect. For this is the Jesus who will wash his disciples’ feet and calm their quarrels with an admonition that the greatest will be the servant of all. This is the Jesus who will say strange things like the least is the greatest in the Kingdom of God, the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

This reversal of expectations is true even for John the Baptist, who has predicted the coming Messiah with a passion that rouses the crowds. His life is built around the hope of Christ’s appearing. But when Jesus emerges and utters his first words as a grown human being in the Gospel of Matthew, he upends the prophet’s world-view. As he will spend his ministry doing. To be clear, if Jesus were to suddenly appear here this morning, he might not seek to teach from the pulpit or administer communion. He might rather sit and listen among you. He might demand that we bless him.

And where would that leave us? Dumbstruck perhaps? Hesitant, for sure.

Fulfilling righteousness has little to do with our power to influence outcomes in our own lives or the lives of others, nor does it really have to do with acquiring some cosmic sense of our own failings. Most importantly, fulfilling righteousness may not have much to do at all with our craving God’s blessing. Instead, it has much more to do with the times when we seek out Christ in our midst and live into our deeper need to bless him in one another. Of setting aside our impatient desires long enough to allow God’s grace to act through us, to allow the action of the Spirit in our imperfect midst.

We cannot, through the vanity of our own efforts, grasp or attain righteousness. We can only bless righteousness, baptize it, fulfill it by serving the One who came to serve wherever we find him. It’s a potent message for us who strive continually to be better, to work to deserve God’s blessing. Like John standing at the River Jordan expecting Christ to winnow, burn the chaff, wash us with a spiritual fire, perfect us, we might be a little bit surprised at a Christ who says, “No, you baptize me. Bless me, you imperfect, beloved children of God. For only in this way will the righteous reign of God begin.”

So that is our task today as we move through our usual routine, renew our baptismal covenant, say the prayers, come forward to table and receive the cup and bread broken. We bless God in Christ and then risk repeating that action over and over again as we leave here to serve: to serve without being perfect or fully capable, or even fully equipped to handle the problems, challenges, and fears the world will bring us.

For our capabilities, busy-ness, resolve, politics, and problem-solving abilities are not at issue in today’s Gospel. Only God’s grace is. For righteousness fulfilled welcomes the Spirit, and perhaps when our clattering desires and impatient endeavors quiet for a moment, perhaps when we learn to bless Christ in our midst rather than anxiously await his blessing, the sky will open, the Spirit will descend, and we, too, will hear the voice of God proclaiming:

“This is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”


It has already been widely discussed in the blogosphere that late on Friday, the Presiding Bishop inhibited John-David Schofield from functioning as bishop in the Episcopal Church. He has two months to recant abandonment of communion in this Church, or face a possible deposition by the House of Bishops.
Mark Harris and Tobias Haller sum up the situation with great insight. Much of the response, ranging from the Primate of the Southern Cone to Bishop Iker of Fort Worth states the obvious. Some of it, in my view, is just stuff and nonsense.
At the end of the day, it really matters very little what they say or think. What matters now is the internal integrity of the communion of the Episcopal Church, for that is the communion over which our canons have jurisdiction. John-David Schofield might equivocate and Presiding Bishop Venables may say we have no power over him. But now a process must be followed, with the quite possible end of declaring a see vacant so that the life of the communion of this church may continue, and those who remain Episcopalian, the true Diocese of San Joaquin duly formed by this Church through an act of General Convention, may claim what is rightly within their stewardship and jurisdiction.
And the integrity of communion matters, not because it is perfect, but because communion is about that root word, community, which means how we remain accountable to one another in the context of the greater body.
In this sense, it seems a clear boundary violation has occurred, and the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church is doing what good, differentiated leaders do when this happens: she is stewarding, along with our bishops in collegial relationship, the boundaries of this Church.
With this in mind, it seems to me a number of things are clear:
  • Whatever ontological identity John-David may claim as "bishop," no bishop, and no clergy for that matter, function in the Church without the consent of the body. As other bloggers have noted, we clergy all serve under license. That's how we are held accountable to the greater community that, through our overseers, ordained us and gave us standing in this communion. Even laity are accountable to the communities in which they serve. That is part of what it means to live in community.
  • Vows do matter, even when they are to the imperfect. John-David Schofield and a number of clergy who follow him may regard The Episcopal Church as heretical or disagree with its decisions, either recent or longstanding. They may, by moving to the Southern Cone, believe they are protecting their personal piety and perceived faithful integrity from whatever they believe we, as a Body, have done incorrectly. But that's not the issue. The issue is that they made ordination vows to the discipline, doctrine, and worship of this Church. And John-David in particular agreed to honor the boundaries of collegiality in the House of Bishops, and no other. To actively place himself, as bishop, under the jurisdiction of another House and Primate appears to me and many others to violate these vows, and means risking the privileges and responsibilities of ordination in this Church, including stewardship of any property that is held in trust for this Body in San Joaquin.
  • Accountability matters, as John-David is only likely to discover more profoundly in the coming months. If he ducks accountability for trying to grab at privileges and property he has already publicly forfeited, he could well force the only option then left to The Episcopal Church: court action.
  • In the context of this question, all the rest about human sexuality, Lambeth 1998.I.10, the consecration of the bishop of New Hampshire, and upholding the "faith once delivered to the saints," is simply a smoke-screen for bad behavior in community, a bucket full of red herrings. That is what I mean by stuff and nonsense.

Our Presiding Bishop has been succinct, direct, and collegial in her approach to this situation, a display of true leadership at a time when naked power and property grabs by bishops and archbishops risk making us all a laughingstock. It's a grim time, but there is something refreshing in leadership that draws clear boundaries and takes responsibility for consequences that are measured, in line with the internal integrity of this Church community, and shared in careful discernment.

So now John-David can claim martyrdom or superiority by numbers all he wants. It really doesn't matter.

While there is no place for us to impugn anything about his faith in Christ, the truth is, we are all accountable for our own behavior in community. We make decisions we hope out of a place of inner integrity and then accept the consequences with some humility. That's a simple matter of transparency and vulnerability in right relationship. It seems to me the Gospel has a great deal more to say about this than personal piety, doctrine, righteousness, or beliefs.

And it strikes me that a fundamental misapprehension about this is very much at work near the heart of the present mess.